Walking the Green Line

In the mid-1990s, my wife signed a deal with an Israeli publishing house to write a book about the settlers. The idea was for us to reside for a year in the distant settlement of Elon Moreh, a hard-core hitnachalut, in which some of Gush Emunim’s founding fathers live. Elon Moreh is located on top of the impressive Har Kabir (Great Mountain), overlooking the site of the biblical city of Shechem, not far from today’s Nablus. Our plan was to drive back and forth to our workplaces in Tel Aviv along the treacherous but beautiful roads of Samaria.

We never tried to deceive the people of Elon Moreh. They knew we were coming because of the book, and also knew that we weren’t exactly sympathizers. But we were trying not to be biased either. We told the committee processing our application for residency that we weren’t coming because we wanted proof that settlers were evil or deranged—and it was true. We had long talks with the man who was then secretary general of the settlement and his elegant, French-born wife, a woman who later became my wife’s friend. We ate at their dinner table, and learned their children’s names and habits. It was a long process, and at the end, after much deliberation, the reception committee decided to let us live in the settlement.

It was not an easy decision for them, I am sure, and not just because of our political differences. I come from an Orthodox family and am quite familiar with traditional Jewish practices, but my wife has a secular background and has never been a strictly observant Jew. Elon Moreh is a very religious place, so allowing her to observe and write about their lives required a level of trust and acceptance that settlers of this kind don’t always seem to possess. Nevertheless, they were convinced, and we were allocated a small townhouse.  We got a local phone number and reserved the truck that would carry our belongings from our apartment in Tel Aviv to the mountainous tranquility of Elon Moreh.

Just three days before the planned move, an early morning phone call notified us that there was trouble. Apparently, not all the residents of Elon Moreh were at peace with the committee’s decision. A couple of them demanded a general assembly of all the settlement’s residents to review it. We were invited to come and make our case. When we got to the settlement it was clear to us that the battle had been lost even before it started. The assembly was not gathering to hear our case. It was putting us on trial for all the sins, real or imagined, of “the press,” “hedonistic Tel Avivians,” “peaceniks,” and the “hostile elites.” They would not trust us, “media people,” nor would they allow a “fifth column” into their safe, isolated hermitage.

Their suspicions were not utterly unwarranted.  Over the years, the settlers have received a lot of bad press.  But there are also writers who are their friends and admirers, who describe them not as obscurantist enemies of the peace process but as potential saviors of Israel.  Indeed, conflicting narratives mar all discussion of the settler movement, impeding dispassionate understanding of its origin and destination. All writers are either “with us” or “against us.” All take sides, including those whose books are under review here.

In The Accidental Empire, Gershom Gorenberg subtly mocks the way in which previous writers on the subject of the settlements have tendentiously oversimplified matters. “On one side are the secular pragmatists of the left; on the other, the religious fanatics of the right. Or—in another telling that changes the labels without drastically changing the script—on one side are uninspired defeatists; on the other, the truest patriots.”  But Gorenberg, though a gifted writer, suffers from the very malady that he has diagnosed. The reader of his book can have no doubt as to which narrative he accepts. And more troubling: one gets the sense that he embarked on his investigations with his mind already made up. Whatever he actually discovered—many new details but few new insights—Gorenberg wasn’t going to write positively about the settler movement. He embarked on his journey in order to understand how the rogues got the upper hand. An American-born Israeli, writing in English for a primarily American readership, his main contribution is to impose a prefabricated Americanized vocabulary on this highly specific Middle Eastern story, relying on concepts such as  “colonialism” and “empire,” which are of dubious use.

Gorenberg’s treatment of the subject is relatively calm and even-handed compared to that of Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar—a scholar and a journalist, respectively, of the Israeli Left. Gorenberg, to his credit, concentrates on history, retelling in detail how the settlers started their conquest of the West Bank (his story ends more than thirty years ago). You can find little sympathy or admiration in his narrative, but the tone is generally composed. This is not the case with Eldar and Zertal, who pretend to write history while engaging in raw politics in their Lords of the Land.

Where Gorenberg seems not to like the idea of the settlement movement, Zertal and Eldar seem to dislike (dare I say hate?) the settlers themselves. What they are really most angry about is Israel’s complicity with the settlers’ advances. They accuse the settlers of “stealing” the land. They make sure to use the word “radical” when referring to activists of the right (there’s no “radical” left in their political vocabulary). They say of the settlers that “their camp” was “guilty” and is “responsible” for the assassination of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. A mere glance at the titles of the book’s chapters gives one a sufficient sense of what’s inside: “blindness,” “bad faith,” “a moveable death,” “complicity,” “the pace of apocalypse.” This is an angry book.

Gadi Taub’s The Settlers is hardly any less impassioned, but it is couched in much more temperate terms and makes an honest attempt to dive deeper into Israel’s ideological battles. One of the more intriguing aspects of Taub’s book is his elucidation of the way settlers have used language to rationalize their actions, employing different strategies and combinations of arguments to convince the public that the journey on which they have embarked must continue. Settlers, as Taub meticulously demonstrates, have used religious arguments (this land is a God-given land), historical arguments (this is our fathers’ land), strategic arguments (if we abandon the mountainous Judea and Samaria we will be at a strategic disadvantage), and even lawyerly arguments (what about our human rights? why can’t we live here?). All of these arguments Taub describes as evolving justifications aimed at answering skeptics at different points in time. He regards them as tactical moves more than anything else, tricks the settlers repeatedly use to masquerade the religious-messianic motives of the movement’s hard-core leadership. And his conclusion (to cite language he has used elsewhere) is based on words he cites from someone within “the camp”:

In all public transactions outside the circle of believers the rhetoric of redemption proved ineffective … “I don’t think that it’s possible to take a public and raise it all at once to higher stages. Nekuda, which is our broadcasting channel, has to do it in a continuous process. We [the religious core of the settlers] need to project that we are a sober, realistic, rational public, in order to tie wider publics to us. Only after we tie the public to us, could we raise it to higher stages. I don’t know if the time has yet come for that…

Taub makes a convincing case. He is right to point out that the settlers continually revise what they have to say for public consumption, and that with every twist and turn in their rationales they end up bumping into another wall. If settlements are there because of religion, then they will not be acceptable to secular people. If they’re there for security’s sake, that’s not convincing either, since “in security matters, the state is far more responsible, better informed, and better equipped to plan and consider matters than settlers are.” What settlers really believe in and hope for, according to Taub, is a miracle: “that redemption would come if only they held fast to the land,” but “did not cut themselves loose from the hawkish right, on whom they relied for a political solution.” Of course, Taub finds this unacceptable. A state can’t pursue policies based on the hope for divine intervention. Zionism itself is based on the assumption that the only miracles are the ones that are man-made and that Jews should take matters into their own hands.

While Taub does a fine job of exposing messianic thinking among settlers, he fails to see what we might call the “settlerism of practice,” the settlerism that is far from being “radical” or “messianic” and is very close in nature and performance to early Zionism. It is the achievement of a settler movement that sets impractical goals, and then settles for those it can get; a settler movement that dreams unrealistically, but is very realistic and pragmatic in its policies. And the proof is on the hills of Judea and the mountains of Samaria. A lively, dynamic, vibrant Jewish community now inhabits those areas, one that builds houses, establishes schools, manipulates governments to get more funds, playing the game dangerously but also carefully, handling its affairs in a shrewd, pragmatic way.

Surely there is reason to be disappointed with the settlers’ less than complete readiness to condemn the violent shenanigans of the “Jewish Underground” of the 1980s; surely there is reason to be angry with settlers’ behavior prior to the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin; and surely there is a lot to be said against settlers’ cursing of soldiers and policemen during the Disengagement from Gaza. All that said, the settler “movement” never went as far as to lose touch with Israeli society. Even in the aftermath of the Israeli government’s recent decision to freeze settlement construction for a period of ten months, they have still been careful not to go too far in their protests and active opposition. Thus, what Taub describes as the worrying signs of settlers’ lying to Israelis about the “real” motives for settling the land could also be viewed as grounds for reassurance: they feel the need to revise their self-justifications because they want Israelis to be convinced. They want Israelis to be convinced, because they themselves are “Israelis” and would like to be part of Israel’s society. They have to change their story in order to be “acceptable.”

In the eyes of Jerold S. Auerbach, they are already much more than acceptable. His Hebron Jews is a sympathetic book—sympathetic to settlers and settlements—but no less angry than Zertal and Eldar’s Lords of the Land. While they are angry with the settlers, Auerbach is angry with all those who oppose the settlers’ grandiose project. “By now,” he writes accusingly, “the rhetoric of settler illegitimacy is deeply embedded in Israeli secular culture.” In Auerbach’s world, as in the parallel world of Zertal-Eldar, there is no such thing as gray. Everything is black or white.

Rabbi Moshe Levinger, for instance, the incendiary, fanatical leader of Hebron’s settlers and a figure of some notoriety, shows up in Auerbach’s narrative as a man who has “proven to be a formidable, indeed, irrepressible, leader—and provocateur.”  Although he might occasionally be “histrionic, even hysterical, his charismatic power was indisputable. Combining asceticism, stubbornness, and courage, he led by bold example…” Levinger, Auerbach notes, “was unafraid to roam, at night and unarmed, through the forbidding Arab casbah. There, oblivious to danger, he might sit on the ground, lead prayers, and conduct a Torah lesson…” To such heroes as Levinger, Auerbach contrasts “secular Israelis,” who “scornfully dismissive of biblical land promises, emancipated from Jewish memory, and avidly embracing modern Western values—have all but forgotten what Hebron Jews remain fiercely determined to remember.”

However, Auerbach is wrong both factually and ideologically. Secular Israelis aren’t “scornfully dismissive” of biblical promises. The head of Israel’s opposition, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in a speech marking the November 29, 1947 UN resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, talked about “the connection of thousands of years between the Jewish people and the land of Israel.” And this comes from Livni, who favors a two state solution and evacuation of settlements. She supported the Gaza pullout and the “convergence” plan that never materialized. (Ehud Olmert promised Israelis that he would evacuate most of the West Bank within four years if reelected Prime Minister.) Other such comments by secular leaders, authors, military men, politicians, and citizens of Israel can be easily found. Secular Israelis didn’t “forget” what Hebron Jews “remember.” They just choose not to make remembrance the one and only consideration in public life. It is arguably the case that it is they who better “remember” the lessons of pragmatic Zionism, and it is Auerbach’s settlers who sometimes “scornfully forget” to prioritize their values and desires in a reasonable manner.

Amona

Far from regarding secular Israel with boundless scorn, like Auerbach, Emily Amrousi is one of those nice, presentable settlers, who want a dialogue promoting the message of friendly otherness to the many readers, radio listeners, and media personalities still charmed by the fact that a settler—a settler!—can speak their language. A professional in the world of public relations, she has written a novel that is more of an anthropological achievement than a noteworthy piece of literature. Her protagonist, Na’ama, is a “settler” no doubt, but also a human being interested in topics familiar to all readers of young mothers’ chick-lit:

a familiar tingle in my breasts. Sure sign that they are filled with milk right on time for breast-feeding and this draws me back to the mother station. A breast-feeding mother: the line connecting me to the baby is the time between feedings. My life circles in three-hour intervals, between breast-feeding and self-feeding…

This is a political book, but its messages are wrapped in the human story of settlers’ daily apolitical struggles. These include coping with gossip (mostly concerning pregnancy, or, more accurately, the whisper-drawing non-pregnancy), relationships among neighbors, domestic struggles, even—delicately—the settlers’ sex lives. The book contains more self-conscious mockery than people might expect from stern-looking zealots, and thus enables Amrousi to achieve two goals: disarming the settlers’ foes, and criticizing settler mores without alienating herself from her own community. What we hear is the criticism of a lover and the self-mockery of a member. Unlike my wife, she might even acquire the trust of some (though probably not all) of the ultra-zealots of Elon Moreh.

To such a reader the message is hard to miss: “look, we are just like everyone else. We talk about men, more about relationships, less about sex … we love this land but we also want to walk along its roads with decent shoes on our feet.” Amrousi makes her case convincingly, if sometimes breathlessly. In her novel, real human beings, with their many shortcomings, both political and emotional, and their few virtues, replace the villain-caricatures of Zertal and Eldar and the super-heroes of Auerbach. There are settlers here with whom even the more suspicious reader can identify. To such a reader, there are moments in which the settlers will seem kind and moving, and also moments in which they seem extreme and detached from the realities of modern life.

At the root of Amrousi’s novel lies a call for acceptance. She wants to be seen as a human being, craving, worrying, loving, struggling, not as one of the one-dimensional figures peopling both Taub’s and Auerbach’s books. Ironically, she is “the settler” who is trying to be pleasant and communicative, while these two are constantly pushing her to the margins. Taub portrays her compatriots as the settler-freaks breaking away from Israel’s secular-rational-pragmatic society; Auerbach portrays them as the settler-icons breaking away from Israel’s secular, hedonistic, and valueless society.

One of the things that Amrousi’s book captures nicely is the way that other Israelis, who have no ideological axes to grind, maintain their relations with the settlers and their movement. Unlike the world of cultural and political polemics, in which arguments are made and defended, and in which definitive—and for commercial reasons, preferably controversial—conclusions are drawn, in the world of real people there can be gray areas and unlikely alliances, even friendship. Thus, it is not hard to have days on which one loves the settlers and admires their sacrifices and hardships, and days on which one loathes their dismissive treatment of law and order and their condescending manners toward fellow citizens; days on which their patriotism seems fresh and exciting and days on which they seem weird and out of touch.

Taub’s book catches such moments of distaste, even hate, when he describes how the entire settler community was widely if unjustly accused of incitement leading to murder during the months following Rabin’s assassination. But Taub is not as good at catching the other moments, those of admiration for the settlers and of identification with their struggle and many sacrifices. In September 2009, Dan Margalit, one of Israel’s most well-known columnists and TV personalities—a hawkish centrist and never a “supporter” of settlements—published Hitpakhut (Disillusionment) in which he describes the sorrow he felt upon witnessing the evacuation of Neve Dekalim, one of the many Gaza Strip settlements wiped off the map by Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement” plan of 2005:

I was sitting at home, watching the scenes of clashes in another settlement and tears were pouring down my cheeks. My wife asked me what’s happening—after all, I’ve witnessed worse scenes in the past, for example in the Yom Kippur War, or in the evacuation of Pitchat Rafiach. Nevertheless, this time was different. I promised myself that I will never again support the eviction of a Jew by a fellow Jew from his legal home.

Both Taub and Margalit succeed in conveying the way in which anger or compassion toward the settlers can, on occasion, capture the public mood, but there are also many other moments that defy any such descriptions.

Sadly enough, apocalyptic prophecies accord better with sober analysis of the Middle East than other, more hopeful, predictions. Those laying out scenarios of doom tend to be right more often than those who optimistically claim that better, more peaceful times lie ahead. Strangely, this overwhelming pessimism clouds not just discussions of relations between Israel and its Arab (or Persian) enemies, but also discussions about the future of Israel’s society. Every major event in the life of the country stirs memories of the Second Temple and fears of another Jewish civil war, like in the old days. Every dispute tends to ignite apprehensive discussions of possible fissures and battles.

A pessimistic spirit also hovers over most books dealing with the settlers. Taub, while confident that “most religious Zionist settlers will in the crunch put the state above the settlements,” goes on to say that most Israelis are inclined to conclude that “one will have to force a solution on the settlers, not to persuade them or hope that they will propose a solution to the problem that they themselves have created. And, indeed it looks as if it will be necessary to force a solution on them.” Auerbach, for his part, predicts that “Hebron Jews are likely to remain under siege, the pariahs of the Jewish people.” Such analyses of current events, solemn and annoyingly humorless, prevent both men from looking into the future with a sufficient degree of humility.

“Once Jews relinquish their right to live in Hebron”, writes Auerbach:

They implicitly undermine their claim to live anywhere in their biblical homeland. To abandon Hebron is to surrender the claims of memory that bind Jews to each other, to their ancient homeland, and to their shared past and future.

Taub’s conclusions are more cautious and conciliatory in tone. He urges “secular Zionists” to try to win the hearts and minds of the settlers, and he seems to believe that the settlers are either closet realists who will eventually come around to accepting his worldview or extremist zealots doomed to fail. Their most ardent ideologues and activists, he predicts, will turn themselves into a marginal sect, one that will have difficulty convincing the majority, even the majority of believers, that it is in fact the true representative of the spirit and tradition of Judaism. He who clings to settlement at any price—at the expense of the unity of the people or the Jewishness of the state—will condemn himself to marginality. He will turn, in the eyes of many, in the eyes of the majority, into a kind of territorial Sabbatean who abandoned the ethical, spiritual, and religious world of Judaism to hold fast to a single theological tenet: settling the land.

Curiously, all of the books on this subject treat the debate over settlerism as if it were exclusively a debate among Jewish Israelis, secular vs. religious, Zionists vs. post-Zionists, idealistic vs. hedonistic. The outside world is mentioned mostly in passing, as if Israelis themselves will determine the course of events by force of argument, or ferocity, or even violence. Everyone acts as if settlements were just an internal problem. Palestinians, those living in and desirous of inheriting “the land of the settlers,” are merely bystanders in these books. The watchful world, the critical “international community” that is united and vehement on the “settlement issue,” is no more than a tool in the hands of debating, warring Jews.

This might be the world in which some people would prefer to live, but it can hardly be regarded as a realistic portrayal of the current circumstances. Whether the settlers are right or wrong, whether Israelis will be convinced by their idealistic brethren or outraged and betrayed by their arrogant condescension has less significance than one might wish. As can be easily demonstrated by past events, it is the outside world who will ultimately determine the fate of the settlements. It will be the Palestinians, and their ability to overcome their shortcomings, who will decide whether or not the West Bank remains under Israeli control. And it will be the level of international pressure that will determine the degree to which Israelis will be willing to make sacrifices to hold onto all, part, or none of the settlements.

While no one should be so deluded as to think that ending the settlements will be the key to lasting peace in the region, there is also no reason to believe that keeping the settlements is such a necessity that Israel cannot thrive without them. Most Israelis understand this, whether they support the settlements or not, whether they are settlers themselves, or were, or will be, or once considered it, or have cousins living there (as I have), or will never cross the “green line” for ideological reasons, or for fear of Palestinian terrorism, or for lack of interest. Real Israelis, like the fictional settlers of Amrousi’s book, are all-too human: they have views that can change and loyalties to things other than ideology. Unlike the writers of polemical tracts, they don’t see things in black and white.

Many of them can easily slip into the familiar role of passionately arguing for and against the settlements. But most are weary of this by now. All has been said, and it’s all much too tiresome to repeat. Yes—it is our ancestors’ land. Yes—there’s no reason to prevent Jews from living there. Yes—it is also a political matter, and politics sometime means compromise. Yes—compromise is hard, and will be fervently debated. Yes—if a decision to evacuate will be made, settlers will be evacuated.

Until then, more books about settlers will be written, and the more human they are, the more they deal with the lives that people are really living, the more interesting they will be. “We talk about our lives on the mountain,” says Amrousi’s settler-protagonist, when she is asked to describe her conversations with a secular, liberal, city-dwelling friend. “We talk about the little that he knows. The effort to break down the stigmas in which he is stuck wears me out.”

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